[Photo Collage by Laura Vena]
Let us sum up Clarice Lispector’s “Amor/Love” first. 1960. A woman – Ana – is taking the tram home. She is a wife, mother, homemaker. She is comfortable with her woman’s fate. Joyless, but firm and comfortable. She sees a blind man chewing gum at a tram stop and her world cracks open. She is moved; this is named compassion and love. She gets off the tram and sits a long while in the Botanical Gardens (this is Rio de Janeiro) suddenly aware of dark, luxurious deep life — which is also death — everywhere around here. All is excessive, rotting, nauseous. It — something that is violent, strong, passionate — calls to her. She goes home and we are presented with a slow, hiccupping restoration of order.
Ana’s children were good, something true and succulent. They were growing up, taking their baths, spoiled, they demanded for themselves ever more complete moments. The kitchen was after all spacious, the faulty stove gave off small explosions. The heat was strong in the apartment they were paying off bit by bit. But the wind whipping the curtains she herself had cut to measure reminded her that if she wanted to, she could stop and wipe her brow, gazing at the calm horizon. Like a farmhand. She had sown the seeds she had in her hand, no others, but these alone. And trees were growing. Her brief conversation with the electric bill collector was growing, the water in the laundry sink was growing, her children were growing, the table with food was growing, her husband coming home with the newspapers and smiling with hunger, the tiresome singing of the maids in the building. Ana gave to everything, tranquilly, her small, strong hand, her stream of life. Through winding paths, she had fallen into a woman’s fate, with the surprise of fitting into it as if she had invented it. The man she’d married was a real man, the children she’d had were real children. Her former youth seemed as strange to her as one of life’s illnesses. She had gradually emerged from it to discover that one could also live without happiness: abolishing it, she had found a legion of people, previously invisible, who lived the way a person works — with persistence, continuity, joy.
Like so many other children I wanted to be a writer. I remember the day, at a desk, that I realized I always wrote stories as if I were male. I wanted to be a writer but I gradually emerged from youth to realize that I cannot string together narratives, I cannot tell stories, even to my children and friends. I wanted to be a poet but I’m from elsewhere and what passed for good poetry in this country eluded me. I decided that the way to keep writing was to be an academic where writing is supposed to be parasitical, where I can lean on, hide within or add to the words of others, where the codes and formulas to be reproduced came more easily. Todo o seu desejo vagamente artístico encaminharase há muito no sentido de tornar os dias realizados e belos; com o tempo, seu gosto pelo decorativo se desenvolvera e suplantara a íntima desordem.
I discovered that editing or translating was to burrow still further within the words of others and found a certain unsigned freedom from the injunction to express oneself. This I understood when reading Argentine writer Tununa Mercado who recounted, in a semi-autobiographical novel, her years of being a ghostwriter: remaining hidden in the wings, behind the pages written by others, correcting, straightening out syntax, improving in the best of cases, texts that were to be signed by others. She calls this the mission of tutoring the sentences of others, of playing wet nurse over the verbal cradle of someone else’s imagination, of another unconscious mind, of being a municipal inspector of language and discourse, making incisions into paragraphs, punctuating and adding quotation marks wherever possible and necessary. She calls this a neurosis of destiny. Her own writing became disjointed: “my phrase” she says was dying, fading out, being masked; pieces of herself found their ways into the writings of others, giving birth to unrecognizable monsters. She speaks of this as a loss but what I saw, as I read this, and thought of the writing I was tasked with, was also an extension of her selves into the places of others, an inhabiting of places that could never be proper, forms of squatting or occupation.
Respondendo ao apelo lançado pelos mundos possíveis de Clarice, o mundo das coisas infinitamente pequenas, a escrita é ainda uma luta contra o esquecimento dessa inscrição do corpo do leitor no corpo do texto lido. Writing is to struggle against forgetting the inscription of the body of the reader in the body of the text that is read. “I am not an intellectual,” Lispector says, “I write with my body.” The body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged workers: the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance.
Such forms of habitation are also forms of labor. There are people – says Tununa (and my forms of writing means I am bound to cite, to inhabit but never fully cannibalize the writings of others) – There are people, she says, who have extensive resumes, boasting articles and dense far-reaching essays that they never actually wrote, that were written for them by scribes like me. People who borrow or buy the words of others and then, puffed with pride, offer for their part a theoretical framework, without which, one might suppose, nothing would ever be understood, minimizing the importance of such secondary considerations as syntax. These people believe that not knowing how to write is an irrelevant disability, given that the only important thing is having and formulating a theory. In the empty framework in which these people vaingloriously revel, the craftsman or woman must toil on.
This woman, this craftswoman, trades in such secondary considerations as syntax. To know how to do so is an ability, a resource which seems to have little value, but out of which, on the back of which, theories and resumes are crafted. To fall into a woman’s fate: tender, mender of the words of others, upkeeper of worlds, of the daily infrastructures of life. A legion of people previously invisible, anonymously nourishing life. A labor that is unwaged, undervalued.
What do we know of value? What a certain scholarly production has confirmed is that to reconstruct the history of women or to look at history from a feminist viewpoint means to redefine in fundamental ways the accepted historical categories and to make visible hidden structures of domination and exploitation. What is recast? Sexual identity can be a carrier of certain work functions; woman can be rendered a machine for the production of new workers; violence can be an economic category.
Female serfs were less dependent on their male kin, less differentiated from them physically, socially and psychologically, and were less subservient to men’s needs than “free” women were to be later in capitalist society. In the feudal village no social separation existed between the production of goods and the reproduction of the work-force: all work contributed to the family’s sustenance. Women worked in the fields, in addition to raising children cooking, washing, spinning, and keeping an herb garden; their domestic activities were not devalued and did not involve different social relations from those of men, as they would later, in a money-economy, when housework would cease to be viewed as real work. Even when we’re not talking about money, our notion of value has been thoroughly saturated by the money relation.
I did not want to be a woman but I became a mother. My children are good. They are growing up, taking their baths. Demanding. My trees grow. The water in the laundry sink. My artistic desires are no longer solely defined by making the stone stony but oriented towards tending infinitely small minutia. I also work for wages: only one of these forms of labor is valued. The other is labor with guilt; it is more physical and more ghostly at the same time. I translate, crawl into words of others, edit, take up house there, think about resources, labor and water, wonder about perfecting anonymity and why we might refuse to chase after value. Language sometimes slows as it did for my father once. The horror of inexpressive beetles. Someone – a man – suggests the phrase “broken world thinking” and I reach for it, swallow it up.
The mesh had lost its meaning and being on a tram was a snapped thread; she didn’t know what to do with the groceries on her lap. And like a strange song, the world started up again all around. The damage was done. Why? Could she have forgotten there were blind people? Compassion was suffocating her, Ana breathed heavily. Even the things that existed before this event were now wary, had a more hostile, perishable aspect … The world had become once again a distress. Several years were crashing down, the yellow yolks were running. Expelled from her own days, it seemed to her that the people on the street were in peril, kept afloat on the surface of the darkness by a minimal balance — and for a moment the lack of meaning left them so free they didn’t know where to go.
The (re)construction of order, of the legible and comprehensible, is unfree and blind for Ana: it forgets that there are blind people, children and grown men going hungry, a rich rotting world. It forgets what it does not see: the absence of law that emerges suddenly in the aesthetic epiphany that breaks apart automatization. And for an instant the wholesome life she had led up till now seemed like a morally insane way to live. Life was in peril. She loved the world, loved what had been created.
Her world breaks open, but wasn’t broken before, or she had forgotten that she lived in one that was in fact broken. Her work was to grow but not to repair. Repair – on the other hand – is about the extension or safeguarding of capabilities in danger of decay. It is a timely phenomenon, bridging past and future in distinctive and sometimes surprising ways. Repair inherits an old and layered world, making history but not in the circumstances of its choosing. It accounts for the durability of the old, but also the appearance of the new (behind and prior to the origin stands the fix). Above all, repair occupies and constitutes an aftermath, growing at the margins, breakpoints, and interstices of complex sociotechnical systems as they creak, flex, and bend their way through time. It fills in the moment of hope and fear in which bridges from old worlds to new worlds are built, and the continuity of order, value, and meaning gets woven, one tenuous thread at a time. And it does all this quietly, humbly, and all the time. Articulation lives first and foremost in practice, not representation; as its etymology suggests, it is a creature of bones, not words. When articulation fails, systems seize up, and our sociotechnical worlds become stiff, arthritic, unworkable.
Broken world thinking is to see the world as always in peril, as constitutively broken, not an accidental tearing of the mesh. It is to live at the end of the world, keeping it alive one second more. I don’t know if I want to call such articulation, such making do “order”, but I do know that I can’t locate love on the far end of a continuum from such labor.
Without suffering, eyes open.
Ana, in distress, Ana, in ambush.
The woman was nauseated. She grabbed her bag,
The little horror of dust threading,
The horror of the inexperessive beetles.
She rattled the locked gates. She felt the child’s delicate ribs between her arms,
The heat of the stove stung her eyes.
The water was pouring out,
She would have to kiss the leper, bags under his eyes
Her husband in front of the spilled coffee.
Like a farmhand.
Adriana Campos once lived in Valencia for a year. She likes cous cous, open houses full of different people, watching Star Wars with her children, and has just recently started appreciating cacti. Some of this is due to the fact that she was a third culture kid.